Skeleton crew surrounded by best medical technology money can buy

$19.4 million health centre languishes with no staff


CAMBRIDGE BAY – When pregnant women arrive at the new Kitikmeot Health Centre in labour, ready to deliver their babies, they're in for a big disappointment.

Even though there's a padded delivery table, a new crib covered with a sheet decorated with pink and brown teddy bears, and a comfy rocker, these expectant mothers must be flown to Yellowknife or Edmonton, because there aren't enough nurses and doctors to perform deliveries.

It's also not yet possible for the critically ill or aged to receive respite and palliative care in the health centre's second-floor corner suite, which has a hospital bed, a reclining bed-chair for visitors, a bathroom and fully-equipped kitchen.

Nothing moves in the mirrored physiotherapy room, with its treadmill, weights and many other tools of a physiotherapist. There's not a sound in the high-tech audiology suite.

The health centre also features a kitchen, laundry room, staff room and the northernmost pair of elevators in Canada.

The spacious second floor of the $19.4-million health centre, which opened in the fall of 2005, has nine empty rooms for in-patients. The hospital beds and forlorn-looking cribs have never been slept in. The huge wood-panelled nursing station is deserted, and a video screen shows no human activity in the hall.

In the stairwell, a huge orange and black painting of a muskox by Tanya Tagaq Gillis hangs, but only a few patients enjoy the sight.

Four clinical nurses and one doctor provide almost the same care they did before the new centre opened, with help from a nurse supervisor, a public health nurse and support staff. Two international nurses, hired for general duty nursing in the health care centre, run a program for elders and provide extra home care in the community.

"A proper standard of health care is more than just a building," says Sheila Thompson, the assistant director of clinical services at the centre.

But that level of care may take a while to reach, because there's no housing to hold the additional nurses, doctors and health professionals the centre needs – or none that the Government of Nunavut wants to pay for.

The Kitikmeot Inuit Association built a house in Cambridge Bay for this purpose, but the asking rent, say some, was too steep for the GN.

More housing is expected to be built this summer, but more doctors and nurses still need to be recruited.

For now, all Cambridge Bay can count on is one doctor on a two-month rotation, followed by a longer stint by a former community doctor. Only one of Cambridge Bay's nurses is permanent.

This skeleton staff is surrounded by the some of best health care technology money can buy. A huge x-ray machine and two technicians are already on site, waiting for patients. In the laboratory, another team of lab technicians, also a couple, are testing equipment that should be ready to carry out blood tests throughout the Kitikmeot within weeks.

The x-ray and the lab together will save many waits and trips out for patients in the region. As well, there's an ultrasound travelling around the Kitikmeot, taking prenatal scans. A telehealth machine, which isn't being used to its capacity yet, still does long-distance ear exams, takes photos of wounds and provides long-distance family visits.

The nine patient consulting rooms on the health centre's first floor are already being used regularly as the health centre fine-tunes its appointment system.

The trauma room and emergency procedures room have three beds and an impressive array of emergency equipment as well as equipment for specialists from Stanton Hospital in Yellowknife who come regularly to look at everything from babies to throats.

"We have a really good specialists program here," Thompson says.

Boxes still fill some unused rooms upstairs, but one in-patient room is put to good use. There, elders eat a hot meal prepared by the hospital's cook, Gwen Tikhak, make use of the specially-equipped bath facilities and have their laundry done.

Across the street from the centre, the new Kitnuna pharmacy supplies medicine across the Kitikmeot, under pharmacist Diane Walker. A regional warehouse is also being set up to store medical supplies for the Kikitkmeot's community clinics and the health centre – a measure sure to save money.

"We're moving forward," Thompson says.

But treating more sick and ailing people will have to wait.

"We want standards in place so there is no different level of care here than in Edmonton or Yellowknife," Thompson says.

But this can't happen until the health centre gets necessary staff and housing. Recruitment will be tough, because full-time staff from the South may pay $2,000 month for rent and can easily find jobs in other regions of Canada with much lower costs of living.

So doctors and nurses prefer to sign short-term agency contracts, which cover their costs of travel and living. Efforts are being made to recruit staff as casuals, who don't have to commit to pay high rents year-round, but will receive some of perks given to permanent staff, such as training.

Until the centre gets fully staffed, medevacs from communities in the Kitikmeot, up to 30 a month at $15,000 a piece, will remain a frustrating fact of life for residents and an enormous expense for the GN.

And the high expectations the Kitikmeot had for more care closer to home will have to be put on the back burner for a while yet.

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